National History Museum

The First World War (1914-1918)

Gas masks from the First World War

The First World War (1914-1918) shaped the twentieth century.  Nothing like it had ever been seen before.  The war is remembered largely because it caused such massive loss of life—estimated at over 16 million.  To mark the centenary of the “Great War” (2014–2018), the National Museum has a temporary exhibition that will run until the end of the year.  The exhibition focuses on South Africa’s involvement in the War, such as the battle for Delville Wood where many South Africans lost their lives, and the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 where over 600 South Africans died.  At the same time, the refusal of Boer commanders to invade German South-West Africa lead to the Rebellion of 1914, and this event also forms part of the exhibition.  Black-and-white photographs capture the stark reality of the war and some unique First World War objects are on display, for example a FUG boot (thigh-length fleece-lined aviator's boot), gloves and cap worn by air force pilots, British and German memorabilia such as gas masks and uniforms, and even a French Adrian helmet (a metal helmet to protect soldiers in trenches from shrapnel, credited to Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian).